I've worked as an exhibit manager for a software company for the last 10 years, but I just took a similar position with a pharmaceutical provider. What's the least I need to know about health-care exhibiting as I launch the newest phase of my career?
Health-care exhibiting comes with its own unique set of marketing challenges, most of which stem from various government "guidances" regarding what is or is not acceptable in your exhibit. In fact, if you don't abide by these regulations, your company can face stiff penalties and severe fines. And trust me, these government bodies aren't fooling around.
Case in point, last year an exhibitor was cited (and possibly fined) for being in violation of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation that required text providing risk information — a sort of fine-print warning — to be visible at all times in the exhibit. The exhibitor was written up because booth staffers accidentally placed their briefcases in front of a graphics panel bearing the required "fine print," thereby obscuring it from attendees' view.
Granted, you won't find FDA code enforcers hiding in dumpsters and bugging your conference rooms trying to catch you committing a violation. But you absolutely have to follow the rules. That's the bad news, if you want to call it that. The good news, however, is that there aren't nearly as many rules as most people think. What's more, there are several sources to help you navigate the sometimes muddy health-care waters.
To get you started, here's a primer about some of the organizations that may govern your company's exhibit, and a few of the key rules they have created. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with these organizations and to peruse their websites for guidelines regarding your specific product and respective industry.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — Luckily for all of us, the FDA's guidelines are fairly straightforward. They simply state that an exhibitor's promotional or sales activities have to be separate from scientific information, and that companies can only promote a product for its FDA-approved use. Generally speaking, that means you can't mix promotional and scientific information in collateral literature, on exhibit graphics, in traffic-building activities, etc. — and if your product was approved by the FDA solely for rheumatoid-arthritis treatment, but it also has a positive effect on psoriasis, for example, you can't promote its psoriasis benefits at the trade show or anywhere else.
Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) — Formerly known as the Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications, the OPDP has oversight and approval rights on pharmaceutical-related issues, such as accurate wording on graphics panels and a lack of "fair balance" in your booth. The latter term means that your text must have a fair balance (i.e., a fairly equal emphasis on and amount of text) of both positive/promotional information and those traditional "fine-print" warnings about side effects, complications of long-term use, drug interactions, etc.
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and The Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) — PhRMA regulations cover pharmaceutical manufacturers, and AdvaMed codes apply to medical-equipment and device companies. In the last decade, these two groups have launched a pre-emptive strike to control what goes on in health-care exhibits before government agencies can step in and potentially enact even stricter (and perhaps nonsensical) guidelines themselves. In 2002, for example, PhRMA issued a code (aptly named The PhRMA Code) banning noneducational giveaways — as tchotchkes of any kind other than those for the purpose of educating attendees could be seen as a bribe to entice physicians to use or prescribe an exhibitor's products/services. It's interesting to note that originally this code called for voluntary as opposed to mandatory compliance. However, shortly after PhRMA introduced it, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) set the revised PhRMA guidelines as minimum standards for exhibitor behavior.
States — Some individual states also have their own laws about what can and can't happen in a company's booth. When a convention is held in a state that, say, has a rule prohibiting exhibitors from distributing food to physicians, any firm that exhibits in that state must follow that law. Plus, when doctors from such a state attend conventions in other areas of the country, the "no-food rule" applies to them even while traveling. That means, for example, that if Massachusetts has a "no-food rule," you can't give a physician from Boston a yogurt at a trade show in Las Vegas.
Similar to U.S. states, many countries have their own set of health-care related guidelines and restrictions. Since the variables regarding such laws are endless, the best advice here is to enlist the help of your exhibit house — and your own internal regulatory and compliance departments — to ensure your exhibit is up to code for each show it attends. However, if your product is sold in other countries, your regulatory and compliance personnel should have a handle on what's acceptable and what's verboten overseas.
Depending on your product and industry, then, you might have to answer to the FDA and OPDP, PhRMA or AdvaMed, and specific states and/or countries. So how do you ensure that your exhibit program is compliant? Here are some organizations and people that can help.
Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association (HCEA) —
Dedicated to improving the effectiveness and quality of health-care conventions and medical meetings, HCEA offers various educational conferences and training opportunities for health-care exhibitors. Plus, its website provides links to countless other sources of information (including information about the Canadian Pharma Code of Conduct, the PhRMA codes, the Guidelines for International Healthcare Exhibitions and Congresses, etc.). It also provides a way for you to connect and confer with other members, many of whom have already faced the same health-care challenges you're likely to encounter.
Regardless of the industry your product serves, your exhibit house should act as a partner, not a vendor. That is, your account executive and/or other personnel with the firm should be willing and able to assist you with everything from exhibit strategy and promotions to ground transportation and compliance. Granted, compliance is ultimately your job, not that of your account executive. But he or she should have a general understanding of what's required and should be able to direct you to other resources that can assist you if necessary.
As you can clearly see, health-care exhibiting is definitely a different kind of animal, and you've got to do a bit more legwork to ensure not only that your program is effective but also that it adheres to the various regulations that govern it. But don't worry, that different animal won't bite. You just need a little extra time to get acquainted with the beast, and your exhibit-marketing program will be purring along in no time.
—Pat Friedlander, owner, WordUp, Chicago